MISS MERIVALE'S MISTAKE
MRS. HENRY CLARKE, M.A.
CHAPTER I. A STARTLING DISCOVERY II. WOODCOTE III. A VISIT TO KENTISH TOWN IV. TOM AND RHODA MEET V. "A MERRY HEART GOES ALL THE WAY" VI. PAULINE'S DIPLOMACY VII. APPLES OF SODOM VIII. AN INVITATION IX. PAULINE HAS HER SUSPICIONS X. A CONFESSION XI. POLLY SMITH XII. CONCLUSION
PAULINE SAT DOWN IN THE LOW CHAIR BY THE WINDOW AND TOOK UP THE PHOTOGRAPH FRAME.
PAULINE LEANT AGAINST THE DRESSER AND WATCHED HER.
HE STARED AT HER, NOT COMPREHENDING.
A STARTLING DISCOVERY.
Miss Merivale had not been paying much heed to the eager talk that was going on between Rose and Pauline Smythe at the window.
The long drive from Woodcote had made her head ache, and she was drowsily wishing that Miss Smythe would get her the cup of tea she had promised, when the sound of a name made her suddenly sit bolt upright, her kind old face full of anxious curiosity.
"Rhoda Sampson, the creature calls herself," Pauline was saying in her clear, high-pitched voice. "Her people live in Kentish Town, or somewhere in the dim wilds about there. You would know it by just looking at her."
"Does she come from Kentish Town every day?" asked Rose.
"Three times a week. On the top of an omnibus, one may be sure. And she imbibes facts from The Civil Service Geography all the way. I found the book in her bag yesterday. I believe she wants to get into the Post Office eventually. It is a worthy ambition."
"Whom are you talking of, my dears?" asked Miss Merivale from her seat by the fire. Pauline turned round with a little stare. Miss Merivale was so quiet and unassuming a personage that she had got into the habit of ignoring her. "Of Clare's new amusement, Miss Merivale," she said, with a laugh. Her laugh, like her voice, was a trifle hard. "It was scientific dressmaking when I was at Woodcote last, you remember, Rose dear. Now it is a society. Clare is secretary."
"But you spoke of some girl who came here," persisted Miss Merivale.
Pauline lifted her delicately-pencilled eyebrows. "Oh, that is Clare's typewriter. She is part of the joke. If you saw Clare and her together over their letters, you would think they were reforming the universe. It hasn't dawned on poor Sampson yet that Clare will get tired of the whole business in a month. It is lucky she has the Post Office to fall back on. Clare is exactly what she used to be at school, Rose, 'everything by starts and nothing long.' It amuses me to watch her."
"She doesn't tire of you, Pauline," said Rose fondly.
Pauline frowned a little. She did not care to be reminded, even by foolish, flattering little Rose, that she was, in sober fact, nothing more nor less than Clare's paid companion.
"Oh, we get on," she said coolly. "We each leave the other to go her own way in peace. And it suits Lady Desborough in Rome to say that Clare is living with her old governess. People think of me as a spectacled lady of an uncertain age, and everybody is satisfied. But you would like some tea. I wish Clare was in. She isn't afraid of that gas stove. I am ashamed to confess that I am. Come out with me while I light it, Rosamunda mia. And you shall make the tea. I never can remember how many spoonfuls to put in. How pretty you look in blue! I wish I was eighteen, with hair the colour of ripe wheat, then I would wear blue too."
She went off, laughing, with Rose to the tiny kitchen on the other side of the passage. The sitting-room was the largest room in the little Chelsea flat, and that was smaller than any of the rooms at Woodcote; but the diminutive dimensions of the place only added to the fascinations of it in Rose's eyes.
As she took the cups and saucers down from the toy-like dresser and put them on the lilliputian table between the gas stove and the door, she felt a thrill of ineffable pleasure.
"Oh, Pauline, I wish I lived here with you. It's so dull at Woodcote. And it seems to get duller every day."
"Poor little Rose, it must be dull for you. Clare and I often talk of you with pity. Clare pities you the most. A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind, you know. She will have to go back to Desborough Park when her mother returns, I suppose. The flat is only rented for six months. I wish"—She stopped to take off the lid of the tea-kettle and peer earnestly in. "When a kettle boils, little bubbles come to the top, don't they? I have got a notebook where I write down interesting little details of that sort. They will come useful by and by, if I have to live in a flat by myself. I shouldn't be able to keep a regular servant."
"But a regular servant would spoil it all, even if you could afford it," said Rose, with sparkling eyes. "We couldn't come out here and get tea like this, if you had a servant, Pauline.".
"She would have to stand in the passage, wouldn't she?" said Pauline, looking round the tiny kitchen, with a laugh. "But how would you like to get tea for yourself every day, little Rose? Clare seems to like it, though. Her mother wanted Mrs. Richards to stay with us all day, but Clare begged that she might go at three o'clock. And Clare is maid-of-all-work after that. It seems to come natural to her to know what kitchen things are meant for. Now, if you will make the tea, we will go back to your aunt. This kettle is certainly boiling at last."
Rose carefully measured the tea into the pretty Japanese teapot. Pauline leant against the dresser and watched her with her hands clasped at the back of her head. Pauline was not pretty,—her features were badly cut and her skin was sallow,—but she made a pretty picture standing there. Her dress of ruddy brown was made in a graceful, artistic fashion, and was just the right colour to set off her dark eyes and dark, wavy hair. Rose thought her friend beautiful. She had adored her from the first day they met, when Pauline was junior English governess at Miss Jephson's Collegiate School for Young Ladies at Brighton, and Rose was a frightened, lonely, homesick child of fourteen, tasting her first experience of boarding-school.
Pauline had had many adorers among the younger girls, and a holiday rarely passed without her receiving some delightful invitations. It was spitefully noticed by the senior English governess that she was very rarely invited twice to the same house; but after Rose came to the school, it became a matter of course that Pauline should spend her holidays at Woodcote. She had no home of her own, as she often sadly told the girls. She very seldom said more than that, but it was understood in the school that the seal ring she wore at her watch-chain belonged to her father, one of the Norfolk Smythes; and the beautiful woman with powdered hair, whose miniature hung in her bedroom, was her great-grandmother, the Marquise de Villeroy, who perished on the scaffold during the Reign of Terror.
It was considered a high privilege by Pauline's band of worshippers to be allowed to hold this miniature in their hands; but on Rose a still higher privilege had been once conferred. She had worn the miniature tied round her neck by a blue ribbon when she acted a part in the French play Miss Jephson's pupils produced every Christmas. That was in Rose's last year at school. She left at the end of the next term, as her aunt was in failing health and wanted her at home.
Soon Pauline left too, and after a brief experience as a private governess, commenced to give visiting lessons in London. She lived at first with a cousin of Miss Jephson's, a clergyman's widow; but the arrangement did not somehow prove a satisfactory one, and it was a relief to them both when Clare Desborough, whose old admiration for Pauline had revived on meeting her in London, had begged her to share the little flat her mother had consented to rent for her, while the family spent the winter in Italy.
Pauline found the freedom of a flat delightful, and looked forward with a sinking heart to the day of Lady Desborough's return. Her only hope was that Rose might be induced to entreat her aunt to let her live in London, so that she might study music at the Royal Academy. Pauline was sure that Miss Merivale would consent, if only Rose's pleading was urgent enough. Rose had had her own way all her life.
"There, it is quite ready now," Rose said, as she finished cutting the bread and butter. "If you will move a little, Pauline, I will carry the tray in."
"I ought to do that," said Pauline lazily. "What will your aunt think, Rosie? I am not treating you like a visitor, am I?"
"I wish I wasn't a visitor," said Rose, with a faint little sigh. "I envy Clare more than I ever envied anybody. She must be having a lovely time." "It will soon be over, poor dear. I wish"—Pauline stopped again, and began a fresh sentence. "You and I would get on better than Clare and I do, Rose. We like the same things. She does not care a bit for music, but I can't live without it. What delightful times we could have together, Rose! But I don't suppose your aunt would hear of it. She is more old-fashioned in her ideas than Lady Desborough."
Rose had clasped her hands together. "Oh, Pauline, it would be too delightful! Would you really like to have me? Aunt Lucy might let me come, though I'm afraid she could not get on without me. And there's Tom!"
Pauline's dark eyes grew quizzical "I didn't know you were afraid of Tom, Rose. Doesn't he think everything you do is right? Was there ever a little girl so spoiled by a big brother?"
"But he thinks I ought always to be at home to wait on him. You said the other day that he was selfish, Pauline."
"All brothers are, my dear," returned Pauline oracularly, "and it is sisters who make them so. Come, strike a blow for your liberty, Rose. You are not really wanted at home, and you are wasting your days in that dull little country place. Wouldn't you like to live here with me?"
Rose's face was answer enough. She drew a deep breath before she spoke. "If only Aunt Lucy wouldn't miss me too much, Pauline! But she's not strong. I don't think she could do without me."
"She would be better if she came up to London oftener and had a fuller life," returned Pauline, with decision. "Her ill health has always been mainly imaginary, Rose. When people have nothing else to do, they sink into invalidism. But you are making me lose my character as a hostess altogether. Let us take in the tea. Your aunt will wonder what we have been doing."
But Miss Merivale had not noticed that the tea was a long time in making its appearance. She was still absorbed in anxious thought when the girls came in, and after a little while she managed to lead the conversation back to Clare and her typewriter.
"Mr. Powell suggested that we should have the programmes for the concert typewritten, Rose. He said it would be cheaper. Could you give me the address of Miss Sampson, Miss Smythe?"
"I shouldn't advise you to employ her, Miss Merivale," returned Pauline in a voice that had a sharp edge to it. For some reason or other, Clare's assistant was evidently not a favourite of hers. "I don't believe she knows her business properly. Lady Desborough's sister picked her up for Clare."
"I might try her. Could you give me her address, my dear?"
Pauline opened her eyes. It was utterly unlike Miss Merivale to be so persistent. "I am afraid I can't, Miss Merivale. I know nothing whatever about her, except that she has just come from Australia with some relations who kept a small shop out there. It was foolish of Mrs. Metcalfe to send us such a person. There are so many ladies who would be glad to do the work."
Miss Merivale had caught her breath sharply as Pauline mentioned Australia, but neither of the girls noticed her agitation. Rose had wandered to the window, and was looking with delight at the vast expanse of chimney-tops, and the little glimpse of the river, grey under the cold March sky. And Pauline was slowly stirring her tea, with her eyes cast down. She was thinking whether it would be wise to drop a hint about Rose's unhappiness at Woodcote. She had just made up her mind to say a guarded word or two, when she found, to her sharp annoyance, that Miss Merivale's mind was still running on Rhoda Sampson.
"She comes here three times a week, I think you said, my dear?" asked Miss Merivale in her gentle voice. "Does she come in the mornings? She has her meals here, perhaps?"
Pauline laughed. "We haven't invited her yet. I told Clare she must draw the line somewhere. There is a Lockhart's Coffee House round the corner, and she goes there. What makes you interested in her, Miss Merivale? If you want some typewriting done, I can easily get a proper person for you. Mrs. Metcalfe got Sampson because she is so cheap. She comes to Clare, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, for some ridiculous sum. If she knew her work, she would have wanted more. In fact, she told Clare that she knew very little. Rose, what are you looking at? Do you find the company of chimney-tops exhilarating? I wish our flat was in the front of the building. Then we could have a good view of the river."
"You have a delightful glimpse of it here," Rose said, without turning her head.
Pauline smiled and looked at Miss Merivale. "Rose is in the mood to find even London smuts fascinating," she said. "Could you spare her to us for a night or two next week, Miss Merivale? Joachim is playing at St. James's Hall, and I want Rose to hear him."
Miss Merivale started from a deep reverie. "Tom talked of bringing her up for Joachim's concert," she said. "But if Rose would like to stay a day or two—But have you room for a visitor?"
Rose had come from the window, her eyes sparkling at Pauline's suggestion that she should stay with her and Clare. She now broke merrily in. "Clare's two cousins stayed with them for a night last week, Aunt Lucy. You don't know how elastic a flat is. Does she, Pauline? Oh, do let me!"
If Rose had been pleading to be let out of prison she could not have spoken more earnestly. Another time Miss Merivale might have been hurt, but just then she was hardly able to attend to what Rose was saying.
"We must ask Tom about the concert," she said. "You can write to Miss Smythe to-morrow. Would any day next week be convenient, my dear?"
"Any day," said Pauline smilingly. "But the sooner the better. Be sure and bring your violin, Rose. I want Mrs. Metcalfe to hear you play. She is a brilliant performer herself. We must have a musical afternoon while you are here. Don't you think you could spare her for a week, Miss Merivale? We shall have so much to do."
"We will see, my dear," said Miss Merivale, getting up. "A week sounds a long time. But we will see. We must go now, Rosie. The carriage will be waiting. You and Miss Desborough must come and see us, my dear. I am sure even a day in the country would be good for you. Don't you pine for the country now the spring is coming?"
The drive home to Woodcote was a very silent one. Miss Merivale and Rose were both absorbed in their own thoughts, and neither of them even dimly divined the thoughts of the other.
It had never entered Miss Merivale's head that Rose, her pet and darling, her little nurse and helper, could be longing to live with Pauline in London; and how could Rose have guessed that her aunt's thoughts were fixed on Rhoda Sampson, the girl Pauline had spoken of in such contemptuous terms? She supposed her aunt was asleep, she sat so still in the corner of the carriage with her eyes closed, and she took good care not to disturb her. She was glad to be free to dwell on the delightful visions Pauline had called up for her.
Miss Merivale roused herself as the carriage turned in at the gates of the drive. The March twilight had gathered thickly, and lights were shining from the windows of the low, irregular house. They could see them twinkling through the trees.
"I wonder if Tom is back from Guilford yet, Rosie. He will scold us for being late. Oh, how sweet and fresh the air is here! Don't you pity those girls cooped up in that stuffy little flat? You must not promise to stay a week with them, Rosie. You would find two days quite long enough."
Rose was saved from attempting to answer this by the carriage stopping before the wide porch. A short, fair-haired young man, with a pleasant face and merry blue eyes, was waiting to open the door.
"Auntie, you have no business to be out as late as this and an east wind blowing," he said, in a playful scolding tone. "Rose, you should not have allowed it. But come in. There is a jolly fire in the dining-room, and tea is quite ready. Next time you go to London, I mean to go with you."
The dining-room looked a picture of comfort, with the curtains drawn, and the table laid for tea. Miss Merivale never had late dinner except when she gave a dinner party. She liked the simple, old-fashioned ways she had been accustomed to in her youth. But the table was laid with dainty care; the swinging lamps shone upon shining silver that had been in the family for two hundred years, on an old Worcester tea-set that had been bought by Miss Merivale's grandmother, on bowls of early spring flowers gathered by Rose that morning from the beautiful old garden at the back of the house. Everything in the room spoke of long years of quiet prosperity. As Miss Merivale took her accustomed seat at the tea-table and looked about her, and then at Tom sitting opposite her, all unwitting of the terrible blow that might be about to fall on him, she could scarcely keep back the sob that rose to her lips.
Tom met her glance without seeing the trouble in it, and he smiled cheerfully back at her.
"Well, how did the shopping get on?" he asked, "Did you remember the seeds, Rose?"
Rose gave him a guilty look. "Oh, Tom, I quite forgot. Did you want them?"
He looked vexed for a moment, but only for a moment. "It does not matter. I can write. I promised Jackson he should have them this week. Cousin Ann has a wonderful show of anemones this year, Aunt Lucy. The square bed in the back garden is brilliant with them. We must try them here again next year. I don't intend to be satisfied till we have beaten Cousin Ann."
"She says the soil here doesn't suit anemones; they are fanciful flowers," returned Miss Merivale. "Then you went to Broadhurst, Tom?"
"Yes, I just managed it. Old Mrs. Harding was there. She is failing very fast, poor old soul. Part of the time she thought I was Cousin James, Aunt Lucy. She wanted to know when I heard last from my sister Lydia."
Miss Merivale put her cup down with a little clatter. Her hand had begun to tremble. "You are very much like James, Tom," she said, glancing at the portrait that hung on the wainscoted wall just above him, "and you get more like him every day."
It was the portrait of her only brother she was looking at. Tom and Rose were her cousin's children, though they called her aunt. She had adopted them when Rose was a baby and Tom a sturdy lad of five. Woodcote had been their home ever since. Tom had grown up knowing that the estate was to be his at Miss Merivale's death. James Merivale had died young, ten years before his father; and Lydia, Miss Merivale's only sister, had married against her father's wishes, and had been disowned by him. After vainly trying to gain his forgiveness, she and her husband emigrated to Australia, and for some years nothing was heard of them. Then Lydia wrote to her father, telling him that she was a widow, and begging him to send her money that she might come home. The stern old man burnt the letter without answering it and without showing it to his daughter Lucy, and the next news came in a letter written by Lydia to her sister.
She had married again, her husband's partner, James Sampson, and had a little daughter, whom she had named Rhoda, after her mother. The letter asked for money, and Miss Merivale sent what she could, though she had little to send, for her father demanded a strict account of all she spent.
She gave him the letter to read, and he returned it to her without a word; but his heart must have relented towards his disobedient daughter at the last, for by a codicil to his will it was provided that at Miss Merivale's death Woodcote was to pass to Lydia, or, in the event of her not surviving her sister, to her daughter Rhoda.
But poor Lydia never knew that her father had forgiven her. She died three days before him; and when her sister's letter reached Australia, James Sampson had broken up his home in Melbourne and started with his little daughter for a distant settlement. He never reached the settlement, and all Miss Merivale's efforts to trace him proved fruitless. She at last accepted the belief of the lawyers that he had lost his way, and, like so many other hapless wanderers, had perished in the bush.
When Tom had become dear as a son to her, fears would sometimes rise that his claim to Woodcote might one day be disputed; but as the quiet years went on these fears ceased to present themselves, and when Pauline mentioned Rhoda Sampson the name had gone through her like a knife. She tried—she had been trying ever since—to tell herself that it was impossible it could be James Sampson's child, but the terror had laid fast hold of her, and she could not shake it off. It was as James Sampson's child she had always thought of her niece. Her heart had refused to give her the place Lydia's little girl had a right to claim. She could not think of her as Lydia's.
Tom had not noticed his aunt's agitation at the mention of her sister's name. He went on speaking of his visit to Broadhurst.
"They want you to spend a day or two there next week, Rosie. Mr. Powell has asked Laura to sing at the concert, and she wants to practise with you."
Rose's pretty face clouded over. "But I am going to stay with Pauline next week. And I wish people wouldn't ask Laura to sing in public. She can't sing."
"It's a pleasure to listen to her, though," returned Tom sturdily. "We aren't all as critical as you, Rosie; and our Parish Room isn't the Albert Hall. You had much better go to Broadhurst than to Chelsea. Miss Smythe and Miss Desborough live in two cupboards up among the clouds, don't they?"
"It isn't quite as bad as that, my dear," broke in Miss Merivale, as she saw Rose's vexed expression. "I promised that Rose should stay with them for a day or two. I thought that if you went up to Joachim's concert you might leave Rose behind, and fetch her next day."
"But, Aunt Lucy, Pauline said a week!" exclaimed Rose in dismay. "We could do nothing in a day. And we want to do so much. Time always flies so fast in London. One lives there."
"We only vegetate here, eh, Rosie?" said Tom in a tone of good-humoured banter. "Was Wordsworth a vegetable too? He lived in the country, you know."
But Rose refused to answer this. "Aunt Lucy, I may stay longer than a day, may I not?"
"Yes, dear, of course. Don't mind Tom's teasing. I must go up to town again to-morrow, I find, and I will call at Cadogan Mansions and see Miss Smythe for you. And I can get your seeds, Tom."
Both Rose and Tom stared in surprise at this. "Aunt Lucy, you will tire yourself out if you go off shopping again to-morrow," exclaimed Tom. "Can't I go for you?"
"No; I must go, my dear. I shall go by train, I think. You shall drive me to the station, and I can take a hansom at Victoria. No, you must not come with me, Tom. I want to see Mr. Thomson."
"You won't be able to find your way to Lincoln's Inn by yourself," said Tom teasingly. "We can't let her go alone, can we, Rose?"
"Don't be such foolish children," returned Miss Merivale, getting up from the table. "I have a matter of business to talk over with Mr. Thomson, Tom. And I would rather go alone, please."
She spoke with such unwonted decision Tom could say no more. But he was both hurt and surprised. Miss Merivale was accustomed to ask his opinion on every business matter. He practically managed the estate for her. It seemed very strange to him that she should be so bent on going to see Mr. Thomson alone. He felt as if he must have proved himself in some way unworthy of her confidence.
Miss Merivale saw that he was hurt, though he tried his best to hide it. But it was impossible for her to explain. She had determined to be silent till she had seen Rhoda Sampson and found out who she was.
Rose was as much surprised as Tom at her aunt's determination to go alone to London next day. She talked of it to Tom in the drawing-room when Miss Merivale had gone up to her room.
"You don't think it is about her will, do you?" she said, in a hushed tone.
Tom gave her a look of strong disgust. "I don't think anything about it. But she isn't fit to go by herself. Get her to take Maitland, if she won't take one of us. She was looking quite ill this evening, didn't you notice? I wouldn't stay away a week, Rosie, if I were you. She misses you dreadfully if you are away only a day."
"But it is so dull here, doing nothing day after day but wait on Aunt Lucy, and pick the flowers, and look after the old people in the village," said Rose, moved to a sudden burst of confidence. "It's different for you, Tom. You have your shooting and fishing, and the estate to look after, and all the rest of it. But I'm at home all day"—
"That's where a girl ought to be, my dear," returned Tom good-humouredly. "I'm not going to pity you. If you are dull, it's your own fault. Laura isn't dull."
"I don't suppose an oyster is dull," was Rose's disdainful retort. "But it's no good to talk to you, Tom."
"I don't say Laura is as clever as you, my dear," returned Tom, with undiminished good humour. "But it is no good grumbling about your lot. Aunt Lucy couldn't do without you, and you wouldn't leave her if you could. So what's the use of talking? And as to your being dull, I don't believe it. You only imagine you are. That's where your cleverness comes in, you see. We stupid people aren't ashamed to be contented."
Rose could not help laughing at this, though she felt very cross. But she felt Tom was right in saying that her aunt could not do without her for very long. And she told herself sorrowfully that she must give up all hope of sharing Pauline's flat when Clare went back to dull captivity at Desborough Park. She could not be spared. It seemed doubtful if she would be able to persuade her aunt and Tom to let her stay more than a day or two when she made her promised visit in the following week.
She went up to her aunt's room to bid her good-night, feeling herself a martyr, but determined to bear her hard lot with decent cheerfulness.
Miss Merivale was sitting at the old bureau where she kept her most private papers. She had been reading over again the letter in which Lydia told her of the birth of her little dark-eyed girl.
Many tears had fallen on the yellow pages before she put them away, and she turned such a white, worn face to Rose as she entered, Rose felt horribly ashamed at having ever thought of sharing Pauline's flat. And the good-night embrace she gave Miss Merivale before going into the little white room that opened from her aunt's had compunction in it as well as warm affection.
"Aunt Lucy, do let Tom go with you to-morrow," she begged. "But must you go to-morrow?"
"Yes, I must, dear. And I want to go alone," Miss Merivale answered. Then she pinched Rose's cheek, trying to speak playfully. "You silly children, am I not to be trusted to go anywhere alone? I shall start early, and get back early. It is business I cannot put off, Rose. Perhaps to-morrow I shall be able to tell you all about it."
A VISIT TO KENTISH TOWN.
It was just before twelve o'clock next morning when Miss Merivale reached Cadogan Mansions. She told the cabman to wait, and walked slowly up the long flights of stone steps.
About half-way up, she met a girl coming down, with light springing steps, buttoning a pair of shabby dogskin gloves. Her dress was shabby too, and the little black straw hat had seen long service; but Miss Merivale only noticed her bonnie face. It brightened the dreary staircase like a gleam of sunshine.
It never struck her that this was the girl she had come to see. From Pauline's words the day before, she had pictured Rhoda Sampson as a very different sort of girl.
The flat was at the top of the high buildings, and Miss Merivale was out of breath by the time she reached the neat front door with the electric bell. She had not long to wait before her ring was answered by Mrs. Richards, a thin, careworn woman, who ushered her into the sitting-room where Miss Desborough sat at her writing-table.
She jumped up, with her pen in her hand. "Miss Merivale, what a delightful surprise! Is Rose with you? I was so sorry to miss you yesterday, but I had to go to a committee meeting. I have more work on my hands just now than I can do. Would you mind my just finishing this letter for the post? It is very important. I shall not be five minutes."
Miss Merivale, who had seen Clare running about the garden at Woodcote three summers before with her hair flying, was considerably taken aback by her extremely "grown-up" manner. She sat meekly down on the sofa and waited for the letter to be finished.
"There, it's done!" Clare exclaimed, after a moment or two. "Now I will just give it to Mrs. Richards, and we can have a little talk. Pauline will be back in half an hour," She glanced as she spoke at a tiny clock on the writing-table. "Then after lunch I must rush off to Southwark. I shall find a big mothers' meeting waiting for me. The women bring their needlework, and I talk to them. Last week we considered Food Stuffs in reference to young children, and this afternoon I am going to discuss Herbert Spencer's Theory of Education."
"Dear me! these sound very difficult subjects for you, my dear," said Miss Merivale, trying to repress a laugh as she looked at Clare's serious young face. "They must need a great deal of preparation."
"Yes, that is the worst of it. I haven't time for any study. We workers lead very busy lives, Miss Merivale. I am rushing all day from one thing to another, feeling all the time that I ought to be doing something else."
It suggested itself to Miss Merivale that work undertaken in that hurried fashion must do more harm than good; but she was too eager to speak of Rhoda Sampson to think much of anything else. "You have someone to help you, Miss Smythe told us yesterday," she said. "Someone who typewrites your letters."
"Oh, Miss Sampson? Yes, she is an energetic little thing. But she has vexed me to-day. I particularly wanted her this afternoon, and she has asked for a holiday. Her little cousin is ill, and she wants to take him into the country somewhere. She has just gone. You must have met her on the stairs."
Miss Merivale started. "Yes, I met someone coming down. Was that Miss Sampson? Then she is not coming back to-day? I wanted some programmes typewritten. Could you give me her address?"
"Yes, I have it here somewhere. But she will be here on Monday. I will speak to her, if you like I shall be glad to get her some work; for after next week I shall not want her, though I have not told her so yet. Mother is coming home rather sooner than we expected, and I am going back to Desborough with her."
"Indeed? You will be sorry to give up your work, won't you, my dear?" asked Miss Merivale mechanically, as she watched Clare turning over her address-book.
"Mother has promised that I shall come back later on and stay with Aunt Metcalfe. I shall like that better than this. One gets tired of a flat after a time. But here is Miss Sampson's address. Will you write to her, or shall I tell her what you want?"
"I will go there now," Miss Merivale said, her hand closing eagerly on the slip of paper Clare gave her. "She has just come from Australia, Miss Smythe said."
"Yes; they have been in England a few months only. I know nothing more of her. But she is a good little thing. Pauline does not like her, but Pauline is too critical sometimes. I notice that she is strangely lacking in sympathy towards girls of Miss Sampson's class."
It was a long drive from Chelsea to Acacia Road, Kentish Town. Miss Merivale knew London very little, though she had lived near it all her life, and the dreary, respectable streets she drove through after leaving Oxford Street behind her oppressed her even more than Whitechapel had done in her one visit to it with Tom, the year before, to see a loan collection of pictures. Street after street of blank, drab-faced houses—dull, unsmiling houses! She thought of children growing up there, wan and joyless, like plants kept out of the sun. And then two happy-eyed boys came running by with their satchels under their arms, while a door opened and a woman with a smiling mother-face came out to welcome them. And Miss Merivale confessed to herself the mistake she had been making. Where love is, even a dull London street has its sunshine.
Acacia Road was reached at last, and the cab drew up before a small bow-windowed house that had a card, "Apartments to Let," over the hall door. A little servant with a dirty apron and a merry face opened the door, and two boys with bright red pinafores came rushing from the sitting-room behind her.
Miss Sampson wasn't in, but her aunt, Mrs. M'Alister, was, the smiling servant-maid told Miss Merivale, and led the way into the front sitting-room. The boys ran upstairs. Miss Merivale heard them shouting to their mother that a lady wanted her, and she sat down on a chair near the door, trembling all over.
The room was the ordinary lodging-house sitting-room; but though there was a litter of toys on the worn carpet, it had evidently been carefully swept and dusted that morning, and there was a brown jug filled with fresh daffodils on the centre table. On the side table near Miss Merivale there was a pile of books. She looked at the titles as she waited for a step on the stairs—The Civil Service Geography, Hamblin Smith's Arithmetic, one or two French Readers, a novel by George MacDonald, and a worn edition of Longfellow's Poems. Miss Merivale wondered if they all belonged to Rhoda.
She was not kept waiting very long. Almost before she had finished looking at the books she heard someone coming down the stairs, and the door opened to admit a tall, angular woman, whose brown hair was thickly streaked with grey. Miss Merivale found herself unable to begin at once to make the inquiries she had come to make, and fell back on the programmes she wanted typewritten. Mrs. M'Alister eagerly promised that Rhoda would undertake the work. She had not a typewriter of her own, but a friend would lend the use of hers, and Miss Merivale might rely on the work being done punctually.
"It is very kind of Miss Desborough to recommend Rhoda," she said in her anxious voice. "It is difficult to get work in London, we find."
"You have lately come from Australia, have you not?" asked Miss Merivale gently.
Mrs. M'Alister was too simple-minded to discern the profound agitation that lay beneath Miss Merivale's quiet manner. And the kind voice and kind, gentle face of her visitor led her to be more confidential than was her wont with strangers.
"Yes, we came back just before Christmas. When my husband died, I felt I must come home. My brothers offered to help me with the boys. Rhoda has taken the youngest down to one of his uncles to-day. But it's only in Essex; she will be back to-night."
She said the last words hurriedly, as if afraid of wearying her visitor. She little knew how Miss Merivale was hanging on her words.
"Your niece must be a great comfort to you," Miss Merivale said, after a moment's pause. "Has she always lived with you?"
"As good as always. She wasn't five when we had her first. Her father was our nearest neighbour; we were living up in the hills then, fifty miles from a town. She used to stay with us for days together while her father went off after cattle. And when he died we brought her home for good. I haven't a girl of my own, but I've never known what it is to miss one. Rhoda's no kith or kin to us, but she has been a daughter to me, all the same, and a sister to the boys. We've had a hard fight since we came home, for my brothers have been unfortunate lately, and are not able to help us as they wanted to; but Rhoda hasn't lost heart for a moment."
Mrs. M'Alister had been drawn into making this long speech by the eager look of interest she saw in Miss Merivale's face; but now she stopped short, her pale face flushing a little. She felt afraid lest Miss Merivale might think she was asking for help.
"Then I suppose she had no relatives of her own?" asked Miss Merivale, after a pause, in which she had been struggling for her voice.
"She had some on her mother's side. I never heard their names. But her father seemed certain that they would be unkind to the child, and he was thankful when we promised to keep her. He was a queer, silent sort of man. We never knew much about him, except that he had lived in Adelaide. But he was mother and father both to Rhoda. He was just wrapped up in her. It was a pretty sight to see them together."
There were many questions Miss Merivale would have liked to ask, but she had not the courage to. She was afraid of betraying herself. She no longer felt any doubt about Rhoda's parentage. James Sampson had not perished in the bush, but had hidden himself in that lonely spot up among the hills, where either no news of the will had reached him, or he had deliberately refrained from communicating with England. Perhaps he thought that his girl would be happier with the kind M'Alisters than with her rich English relatives.
But the most probable supposition was that he had never heard of the will. Mrs. M'Alister had said that they were living fifty miles from a town. How easily it might have happened that the advertisements they put in the Melbourne papers had never been seen by him.
As soon as she could she got away, after arranging that Rhoda should bring the programmes to Woodcote one day in the following week, so that she might talk over with her the details of some other work she wanted done. Miss Merivale marvelled at herself for the calmness with which she settled all this.
But when once she was in the cab her strength left her. After telling the man to drive her to Victoria, she sank back faint and trembling. The alternatives that lay before her seemed equally impossible. If Rhoda was Lydia's child, her own niece, her successor to Woodcote, how could she leave her unacknowledged? How could she be silent about the discovery she had made, even for a day? And as Miss Merivale thought this she stretched her hand to the check-string, determining to drive at once to Lincoln's Inn to see her lawyer.
But her hand dropped at her side. All his life Tom had thought of Woodcote as his inheritance; every stone, every blade of grass, was dear to him. He would have to leave it, to go out into the world to fight for his living. How could she let him go? If she was silent, no one would be likely to guess that Rhoda was Lydia's child. She was not mentioned by name in the will. And she should not suffer. Ways and means of providing for her could be found. But she could not have Woodcote. That was Tom's. It would break Tom's heart to give it up.
As Miss Merivale thought of Tom her heart grew hard against Rhoda. She who had never hated anyone felt herself in danger of hating Lydia's little girl. Tears burst from her eyes and streamed down her cheeks. She did not think of wiping them away. She sat with her hands clasped on her lap, staring miserably in front of her. What she was to do she did not know.
TOM AND RHODA MEET.
On the day of the Joachim concert Tom and Rose went up to London soon after breakfast. Tom was not going to the concert. After taking Rose to Cadogan Mansions he meant to hurry back.
He was anxious about his aunt. She had been so unlike herself during the last few days, he feared she must be ill. And he felt sure he must have offended her in some way, for she had seemed anxious to avoid him, and he had hardly spoken to her since she came back from London.
Did she think he was taking too much on himself? He had got into the habit lately of settling matters of minor importance without consulting her, so as to save her trouble. Perhaps he had annoyed her by doing so. At any rate, he would ask her if this was so. Tom's nature was so simple and straightforward that this was the natural course for him to take. He believed half the difficulties of life arose from the want of a little plain speaking.
Miss Merivale had said little about her journey to town. She left Tom and Rose under the impression that she had called at the lawyer's, and it was not till the next day that she casually mentioned her visit to Mrs. M'Alister.
"I have asked Miss Sampson to come and see me," she added, after telling them that Rhoda was to do some typewriting for her. "I am interested in her, Rose. Did you know that poor Lydia's second husband was named Sampson? It is not at all certain that this girl is of the same family, as she comes from quite a different part of Australia. But I should like to see her."
Miss Merivale had had this speech carefully prepared ever since she came home, and she uttered it so carelessly that neither Rose nor Tom suspected how her heart beat as she said it. Their cousin Lydia was a faint, shadowy figure to them, and the suggestion that Miss Sampson might prove to be related to her husband aroused no interest in their minds. Tom never thought of it again till Rose mentioned Miss Sampson as they were travelling up to Victoria.
"I wish Aunt Lucy hadn't taken her up like this," she said impatiently. "Pauline will be vexed, for she advised Aunt Lucy to have nothing to do with her."
"But if she is our cousin," suggested Tom, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, "don't you think we are bound to patronise our relations?"
"How could she be our cousin? Don't be so foolish, Tom," Rose answered sharply.
"A family connection, then," returned Tom. "But perhaps you had better not mention the possibility to Miss Smythe. It would shock her too much. All her relations are in Debrett, aren't they?"
Rose looked doubtfully at him. "I never know whether you like Pauline or not, Tom," she said. "But I am sure you never heard her boast of her relations."
"No, I never did, my dear; but I have somehow gathered the fact that they are very fine people indeed. I always feel I ought to be ashamed that we did not come over at the Conquest when I am talking to Miss Smythe."
"Now you are laughing at her," returned Rose, with some indignation in her voice. "I believe you are always laughing at her, Tom. And it is just because she is clever. Men always like stupid girls best, who think everything they say is wonderful."
At this Tom laughed outright. "There is one clever little girl I am very fond of," he said, "and it is going to be dull at Woodcote without her. When will you come back, Rosie? Don't stay very long. I am sure Aunt Lucy is not well."
"I must stay till Thursday. Pauline and Clare are going to have a musical At Home on Thursday. But I will come back on Friday, Tom. I must, I suppose." And Rose tried to suppress a sigh.
"Do you really want to stay longer?" said Tom, with a wondering look at her. "I daresay Laura would spend a day or two with Aunt Lucy. I don't think she ought to be alone, Rose."
"Laura fidgets Aunt Lucy to death," Rose answered quickly. "You know she does, Tom. Of course I shall come back on Friday. I promised Aunt Lucy I would."
While Tom and Rose were talking thus, Miss Merivale was waiting anxiously for Rhoda. She had arranged that she should come to Woodcote that morning while Tom and Rose were away. The station was only half a mile from the house, and she did not send to meet her; but she sat by the drawing-room window, looking with painful eagerness down the drive for the first glimpse of the slim figure she remembered.
It was nearly eleven o'clock when Rhoda came up the quiet country road and turned in at the iron gates. It was a delightful day, the first real day of spring. Though no leaves were yet on the trees, ruddy brown buds just ready for bursting clothed every branch. And the grass along the hedges was starred with celandines and daisies, while yellow catkins sprinkled the bushes above them. A blackbird was singing loudly as Rhoda passed the big chestnut trees by the gate, and a squirrel darted down from a fir and scurried across the drive to hide himself in the little wood. Rhoda waited a moment, hoping for another glimpse of the bright-eyed little fellow. She was a child still in her delight in small animals, and this visit to Woodcote was a great treat to her. She loved the country as only country-bred people forced to live in a big town can love it. And this sweet English countryside, with its breezy uplands and smiling pastures, seemed more beautiful to her than even her dear Australia.
She drew a breath of delighted admiration when she came out on the lawn and saw the old house with its beds of tulips before it flaming in the sun. It was such a house as she had read of but had never seen, a haunt of ancient peace, time-worn, yet smiling still, its walls mellowed by the sunshine of many a hundred summers. She would have stood a moment to notice the delightful lines the gables made against the sky, but a figure at one of the deep, narrow-paned windows to the right of the porch caught her attention, and remembering that she had come on sober business, she walked briskly up to the heavy iron-studded door within the porch and pulled the twisted bell rope.
By Miss Merivale's orders she was shown into the library, a delightful room looking out on the garden at the back of the house. She had ample time to notice what a dear old garden it was, for Miss Merivale kept her waiting quite a quarter of an hour.
More than once Miss Merivale went across the narrow hall and put her hand on the door, and then went back to the drawing-room, finding her courage fail her. And when at last she entered, she was so deadly pale, Rhoda lost all her nervousness in pity for her; she felt sure that she must be ill.
"Yes, that will do very nicely," Miss Merivale said, after giving the typewritten programmes a cursory glance and pushing them from her. Her eyes went back to Rhoda's face. She saw now that the fleeting glimpse she had got of her on the staircase had somewhat deceived her. Rhoda was not as pretty as she had thought. Her mouth was a little too wide, and her nose had too blunt a tip for beauty. But it was a charming face, nevertheless, full of heart-sunshine; and the dark brown, darkly-fringed eyes would have redeemed a plainer face.
Miss Merivale remembered with a sharp pang how Lydia had written of her dark-eyed girl. She spoke of her sister, after a moment or two.
"It has struck me that your father might have been related to her second husband," she said. She had determined after leaving Acacia Road to mention this as possible both to Rhoda and to Tom and Rose.
Many people knew that Lydia had been Mrs. Sampson when she died, though Miss Merivale believed that she herself was the only person who was aware that her child had been named Rhoda.
But she soon found that Rhoda knew very little of her father. She had lived so long with the M'Alisters that she had come to identify herself with them, and had never desired to learn more of her own people. She could scarcely remember her father, and could not remember his Christian name. "J. Sampson is written in my little Bible," she said. "It is the only book I have which belonged to him. Our house was burnt down when I was about two years old, and all his books and papers were burnt with it. Uncle Tom and Mr. Harding used to call him Jack, I have heard Aunt Mary say."
"Who was Mr. Harding?" asked Miss Merivale quickly.
"He was father's partner for a little while. I don't remember him at all. He is a rich man now, and lives in Adelaide."
"Your father came from Adelaide, Mrs. M'Alister told me. My sister lived in Melbourne. Then you can tell me nothing else?"
Rhoda hesitated a moment. Miss Merivale's voice had been cold and constrained, but there was a beseeching eagerness in her glance. She unclasped a little locket from her watch-chain and passed it across the table. "That and my little Bible is all I have. It must have been my mother's, I think."
Miss Merivale caught up the little locket with trembling fingers. She rose and went to the window, and stood with her back to Rhoda, apparently examining it.
But her eyes were too full of tears for her to see it plainly. She knew the little locket well. She herself had given it to Lydia one birthday. It was her own hair under the glass, with the ring of tiny pearls round it. All doubt vanished from her mind. She was certain now that Rhoda was her niece.
She came back to the side of the table where Rhoda was sitting, and put her hand on her shoulder as she gave her back the locket.
"Thank you for letting me see it, my dear," she said in a voice that trembled a good deal in spite of the intense effort she was making to hide her agitation. "And now can you make yourself happy in the garden for a little while? I want you to stay to luncheon with me. I will talk to you afterwards of the work I want you to do for me. And you must tell me more about yourself. Try and think of me as a friend, my dear."
She hurried away, not trusting herself to say more just then, and Rhoda gladly went into the garden. Her heart was very light as she wandered up and down the turf paths. Miss Merivale's sudden interest in her and the great kindness with which she spoke when she gave her back the locket did not surprise her as it might have surprised a girl more versed in the world's ways. But she was eagerly grateful. She felt it would be easy to tell Miss Merivale of the hard struggle she and Aunt Mary had had to keep the younger boys at school and pay the premium for Ned's apprenticeship to that big engineering firm.
She was sure Miss Merivale would not suppose she wanted money help. She had talked of giving her work, and it was work that Rhoda was pining for. Her strong young hands and willing brain were eager to be employed to the utmost.
It had been a hard blow to hear that she was to lose her post with Miss Desborough. But perhaps Miss Merivale would be able to help her to get something better. If she could earn a pound a week, there would be no need for Aunt Mary to tire her eyes out over that weary needlework. A pound a week would be riches added to the weekly wages Ned brought home and the interest from the money they had laid by for a rainy day. There would be no need for Aunt Mary to work for those hard shop-people any more. And Rhoda's eyes sparkled as she thought of packing up the last parcel of fine needle-work and taking it back with the message that no more was wanted.
She had been in the garden about ten minutes when Tom, after vainly looking for his aunt in the house, came through the glass door of the library to seek for her out of doors. It startled him for a moment to see a strange young lady in the garden, but before she turned and saw him he had remembered who she must be, and he went forward quickly, taking off his hat, to introduce himself.
No touch of awkwardness marred their first words to each other. Tom's frank face and pleasant greeting won Rhoda's confidence at once, and in a few moments they were chatting like old acquaintances. Tom soon found that she loved a garden as much as he did, though this was the first large English garden she had seen. He was eagerly questioning her about Australian flowers when Miss Merivale entered the library and caught sight of them through the window.
The colour flowed into her pale face as she watched them talking to each other. For the first time she saw how Woodcote might be Tom's and yet be Rhoda's too.
"A MERRY HEART GOES ALL THE WAY."
Dusk had fallen before Rhoda got back to Acacia Road. The omnibus stopped at the corner, and as she went down the dreary street carrying a big bunch of flowers from the old garden, she might have come straight from Arcady, so bright her face was. Mrs. M'Alister was watching for her from the window with the boys, and they were all at the door to meet her.
"My dear, I was getting anxious about you," said Mrs. M'Alister, as they went into the sitting-room, Rhoda holding little Willie in her arms. "You are much later than you expected."
"Miss Merivale begged me to stay. Oh, Aunt Mary, she has been so kind! But I will tell you all about it presently. How tired you look, Aunt Mary! Jack and Willie, I hope you have been good?"
"They have been very good," said Mrs. M'Alister hastily. "I have been trying to get my work finished. Give me your hat and jacket, darling; Jack shall take them upstairs for you. You have had a long day. How beautiful those flowers are! They scent the room already. English flowers are sweeter than our flowers used to be. But we had a lovely garden, hadn't we?" She was speaking very nervously, and she kissed Rhoda again as she took her hat and jacket from her. "I am so glad Miss Merivale was so kind, dear."
"Oh, she was wonderfully kind. And she has given me some more programmes to do. I am to take them to her on Thursday."
"That will be another nice change for you, dear. You look all the better for a breath of country air," was Mrs. M'Alister's nervously-spoken answer.
"Uncle James says we are all to live in the country with him," broke in Jack, who had been watching for an opportunity to make his voice heard. "And we shall have cream every day, and see the pigs fed."
"Uncle James?" said Rhoda, looking at Mrs. M'Alister. A little shadow had fallen on her face. Mrs. M'Alister's elder brother had been the only person who had ever made her feel that she was an outsider and had no real claim to the place she held in the family.
Mrs. M'Alister's anxious face had clouded over too. "My dear, I did not want to speak of it till after tea. James is coming in again this evening, when Ned is home. Jack and Willie, run and ask Mrs. Ellis if the kettle is boiling yet. Rhoda will want some tea."
"I had tea before I came away," Rhoda said, as the boys ran off. "When did Uncle James come, Aunt Mary?"
"This afternoon, dear. He got to London last night. And he went down to the works this morning, and saw Ned and Mr. Howard. Oh, Rhoda, they want Ned to go to Plymouth!"
Rhoda looked at her aunt. She understood now what those new lines of anxiety in her face meant which she had noticed the moment she came in. "To Plymouth, Aunt Mary? But that is a long way off."
"They have a branch there, and they want Ned to go. James says it is a splendid thing for him. And he wants me to go down there and live with him, Rhoda. His farm is only three miles from Plymouth."
She did not look at Rhoda as she spoke, but kept fingering the tablecloth nervously, with her eyes cast down. For a few seconds Rhoda was silent. Then her voice was very cheerful. "Why, you will be quite close to Ned, Aunt Mary. And the country air will be so good for the boys. I think it is a splendid plan."
Mrs. M'Alister gave her a piteous glance. "If only you could go too, Rhoda darling. But James says"—
"How could I get work in the country, Aunt Mary? And Miss Merivale has promised that she will get me plenty of work." Rhoda's lips quivered a little as she thought of her day-dreams as she came home—how if she got plenty of work they might take a little house and have a little garden of their own. But she went bravely on. "It would be foolish of me to think of leaving London, Aunt Mary. And of course you must go with Ned. Is he pleased about it? They must think a good deal of him to promote him like this."
"Yes, it is a promotion," said the mother eagerly. She was very fond of Rhoda, but her eldest boy was her heart's darling. "James said Mr. Howard spoke so highly of him. And James is very anxious I should go to Coombe. His old housekeeper is leaving him, and he wants me. If only"—
But Rhoda again interrupted her. She knew perfectly well how reasonably and firmly the shrewd, hard-headed farmer had spoken that afternoon. He was both anxious and willing that his sister and her boys should make their home with him, but he did not want her. He considered her old enough to fight the battle of life for herself. And she was determined that her aunt should not guess how hard the parting would be to her.
"It is a delightful plan, Aunt Mary. You would not have come to London if Ned wasn't here. I know how you have hated it. And you must not trouble about me. There are heaps of places now where girls can live comfortably for very little. I will ask Miss Desborough to-morrow. And if I can pass the Post Office examination, I might get appointed to Plymouth. Aunt Mary, don't cry. I can't bear it."
"You don't feel it as I shall," sobbed Mrs. M'Alister, without looking up. "But I couldn't let Ned go to Plymouth alone, Rhoda. I couldn't be parted from him."
"Of course not," Rhoda answered cheerily. She was glad her aunt did not look up, for she knew her face had turned very white, and slow hot tears had forced themselves into her eyes. But her voice was cheery. "And you will be quite close to him at Coombe."
"He will be able to live with us. There is a station quite close," said Mrs. M'Alister, drying her tears. Now that Rhoda seemed to bear the news so well, she was able to think of the bright side of things. "And you must spend a long month with us in the summer, Rhoda darling. James means to insist on that. He does mean to be kind, dear."
"I am sure he does. And when he hears about Miss Merivale he will make you see that it would be foolish of me to think of leaving London. But here comes the tea at last. I will run up and wash my hands first. Don't wait for me, Aunt Mary."
No one could have guessed, when Rhoda came down, with her hair freshly done, and a new pink ribbon round the neck of her brown dress, what bitter tears she had been shedding upstairs. And when Mr. Price came in, he was pleasantly surprised at the sensible view she took of things, and his invitation to her to spend the August holidays at Coombe was far heartier than Mrs. M'Alister had dared to hope for.
"And you will be able to run down to Leyton for a Sunday every now and then," he said, regarding her approvingly out of his hard grey eyes. "Mary, here, seems to think you're a baby still, but I know better. Girls aren't what they used to be, Mary—silly creatures who couldn't look after themselves. They don't want to stay at home by the chimney corner all the time."
"I want to work," said Rhoda, speaking rather proudly. She could have added that she might have got work at Plymouth and come home every night, as Ned was going to do, but she knew that it would be no use to say it. He had plainly made up his mind that she must shift for herself. And the only excuse she could make for him was that he did not know how hard it was for her to be suddenly deprived of a home. Shabby and uncomfortable as their lodgings were, not even beautiful Woodcote could have been a dearer home. And a deadly chill seized her heart as she thought of living alone or with strangers. Rhoda was a thorough woman in her need of a home to fill her life. She had never felt Rose's desire to be free from home ties; she could not have understood it.
"Rhoda means to ask Miss Desborough's advice, James," said Mrs. M'Alister, putting down her sewing. "She knows a great many girls who get their living in London and board out somewhere. I shan't feel happy till I see Rhoda comfortably settled."
"Oh, we'll manage that for her," returned the farmer briskly. "And now this Miss Merivale has taken her up she'll get plenty of work, never fear."
"How would it do for you to live with Miss Smythe?" suggested Mrs. M'Alister, looking anxiously at Rhoda. "Now Miss Desborough is going away, she will want somebody, won't she?"
A smile broke over Rhoda's face. She had never spoken of Pauline's contemptuous rudeness to her aunt. She had felt too indifferent to her to be hurt by her behaviour; and since her visit to Leyton, the week before, she had a special reason for being amused at it. But this she had not mentioned.
"Miss Smythe would think me very bold if I suggested living with her, Aunt Mary," she said, in a voice that had a ripple of laughter in it. "But don't be anxious about me. I can stay here with Mrs. Ellis if I can't hear of anything I like better. But I will speak to Miss Desborough to-morrow."
As it happened, however, Rhoda did not see Clare next day. When she arrived at the flat, she found that Lady Desborough had reached town the day before, and had taken her daughter for a day's shopping with her, preparatory to their journey into Lincolnshire.
It was Rose who told Rhoda this. Mrs. Richards had gone out to buy some chops for dinner, and Rose opened the door. Rhoda thought her the prettiest creature she had ever seen in her life. She had a blue dress on and a white cooking apron, and her yellow hair was brushed loosely back from her face and fastened in a loose knot.
"Miss Desborough has left some letters for you to answer," she said to Rhoda pleasantly. "Can you do them at the side table? I am cooking in the sitting-room this morning. It was so hot in the kitchen. Miss Smythe will be in presently. She has a message for you from Clare."
It was rather difficult to work at the side table, which was small and decidedly rickety; but Rhoda made no objection. She found her eyes wandering now and then to Rose, who had gone back to her pastry, and was spending many puzzled glances on the cookery book that was propped open before her.
"I mean to write a cookery book one day," she exclaimed presently, in a tone of deep disgust. "And I mean to use simple language, and explain everything. I can't understand this book a bit."
Rhoda was on the point of offering her help, when the door was hastily opened and Pauline came in, with a bunch of daffodils in her hand. She raised her eyebrows at the sight of the pastry board.
"My darling Rose! Suppose Lady Desborough were to come back with Clare, what would she think?"
"It was so hot in the kitchen, Pauline," Rose answered meekly. "And I do so want to learn how to cook. Mrs. Richards' pastry is like leather. Just look here. This book says"—
But Pauline laughingly put it from her. "My dear child, it is worse than Greek to me. And I really do object to see lumps of raw dough about. Please take them away. I never like to think of my food till I see it on the table. Good-morning, Miss Sampson. When you have finished those letters you will not be required any more. I will pay you before you go. Miss Desborough has gone out with Lady Desborough."
Clare had left a kind message for Rhoda, and when Pauline went into the next room to take off her hat, Rose hastened to give it.
"She was so sorry not to be here to say good-bye to you, Miss Sampson. She feels that you have been such a help to her."
Rhoda had listened to Pauline with a smile faintly lurking at the corner of her firm lips, but now the smile flashed brightly out at Rose.
"It has been very pleasant work," she said. "I am sorry it is over. But your aunt has promised me some more work, Miss Merivale. I am to go down to Woodcote again on Thursday."
Rose was surprised, and she could not help showing it. "You went yesterday, didn't you?" she said rather stiffly. "It is a long way for you to go."
"I am very glad to go," Rhoda answered. She did not tell Rose she had spent the day at Woodcote; something in Rose's manner checked her. But she did not begin her writing at once. Rose had taken up the cookery book again, and was bending puzzled brows over it. Rhoda watched her for a moment, her eyes full of admiration. Miss Desborough was pretty, but there was not a soft line in her face. Rose looked a child still for all her womanly height. Rhoda said to herself that she must be much younger than her brother. It was easy to see that they were brother and sister. Rose had just the same straight brow she had noticed in him yesterday, and her eyebrows, like his, were a shade or two darker than her hair.
"Would you let me see if I could help you, Miss Merivale?" Rhoda said, after a moment. "I did all the cooking at home before we came to England."
But Rose shut up her book. "Pauline will scold again if I don't carry all this away," she said, with a laugh. "And I mean to have some cookery lessons, if I can get them. But Woodcote is so far from everywhere. It is like being buried alive."
Rhoda, who had known what it was to live for years fifty miles from a town, did not know how to answer this. And Rose, angry with herself for saying so much to Miss Sampson, caught up the pastry board and rolling-pin and retreated to the kitchen. She came back in a few moments with her apron off, and found Rhoda busy at work, and Pauline in a low chair by the fire with her hands clasped round her knees. Pauline had changed her outdoor dress for an odd, picturesque frock of sage green Liberty serge, touched with yellow. She had fastened some daffodils in her belt, and looked like an aesthetic picture of Spring.
"Arrange my daffodils for me, there is a good little Rose," she said, smiling lazily at Rose as she entered. "The brown pots, not the blue ones. Now Clare is going to her native fens, I mean this room to be a thing of beauty and a joy for ever. How good it will be to get rid of the click of that typewriter!"
"Don't say that to Clare," laughed Rose, as she brought the brown pots to the table. "She was telling me this morning it was the thing she would miss most."
Pauline lifted her dark eyebrows. "Did she really say that? But it is exactly like Clare; she is more a machine herself than a human being. I was very fond of her once, but I have found her trying to live with. They say you never know a woman till you have lived six months with her. Don't put too many daffodils in one pot, my Rose; they want plenty of room to show themselves."
Rhoda had finished the work Clare had left for her. She carefully put her papers together, and rose from the table. Pauline looked carelessly round at her. "Ah, are you going, Miss Sampson? Here is the money Miss Desborough left for you. Just write a receipt and leave it on the table, please. You understand that you are not wanted any more, don't you?"
"I knew this was to be my last day, thank you," said Rhoda composedly. She smiled to herself as she wrote her receipt. She half thought of mentioning her visit to Leyton, but she refrained. There was not a touch of spitefulness in Rhoda's nature, and she had no wish to humiliate Pauline; but the humorous side of the situation was thoroughly enjoyed by her.
Rose went on arranging her flowers in silence for a minute or two after Rhoda went away; then she spoke rather constrainedly.
"Why do you dislike poor Miss Sampson so, Pauline? Do you know that you were quite unkind to her?"
"Was I? It is necessary to keep that sort of girl at arm's length; she would become intolerable if you didn't. Thank goodness, we have seen the last of her. Now, come and sit down here and have a talk. What shall we do this afternoon, Rose? Only two more days! What do you want to do most?"
"Clare and Lady Desborough are coming back to tea," suggested Rose, with a laugh. "You are not very hospitable, Pauline. And to-morrow we shall be busy all day. My time will soon be over, won't it? Do you know, Aunt Lucy has asked Miss Sampson down to Woodcote again to-morrow, Pauline? I wonder if she has found out that she is related to Cousin Lydia's husband. I don't see what Aunt Lucy can want her for."
"Poor relations are a great nuisance," said Pauline sharply. "It is foolish of your aunt to have anything to do with her. But don't let us talk of Sampson, Rosie; let us talk of ourselves. Suppose for a moment that you were going to stay with me through the summer, just let us plan what we would do."
Rose shook her head.
"It would be too tantalising, Pauline. I shall spend the summer at Woodcote. I know exactly what I shall be doing every hour of the day, and every day of the week, and every week of the month. But don't let us talk of it. Let us talk of the concert last night. Wasn't it wonderful? I wish Tom had been there; he would have understood better why Laura's singing irritates me. Pauline, I must get some good music lessons somehow. Do speak to Aunt Lucy about it on Friday. You are quite right; I am wasting my time as it is."
When Rhoda got home that morning, she found that Mrs. M'Alister had already begun to pack. Ned was to go to Plymouth almost at once, and Mr. Price was anxious that his sister and the younger boys should return with him on the following Saturday. Little Hugh was to stay at Leyton for the present; Rhoda was to bring him down when she came for her holiday in August.
Mrs. M'Alister did not guess how hard Rhoda found it to be cheerful as she helped with the packing. A great load was lifted off her heart by the ready way in which the girl had acquiesced in the new arrangements. Much as it grieved her to part with Rhoda, she could not help looking forward with delight to going back to the dear old farmhouse in which her childhood had been spent. And Rhoda understood exactly how she felt. There was no bitterness in her heart; but, brave and cheery as she was, she dreaded to think of the lonely days that lay before her.
She did not go down to Woodcote till Thursday afternoon. Miss Merivale had asked her to come early and spend the day, but she had written to explain how it was that she could not spare the time; her aunt wanted her help in packing.
The old house looked more beautiful and peaceful than ever, steeped in the golden afternoon sunlight. Rhoda thought with a thrill of wonder of Rose's words about her home. How could she have spoken so!
Miss Merivale was in the library, with all the windows open to the garden. Rhoda was tremulously surprised at her greeting. She kissed her, and even when they sat down she did not leave her hand go, but held it tight, looking anxiously at her.
"I want you to tell me more about your aunt," she said. "I did not quite understand your letter. You are not going to Devonshire?"
"Oh no; I am going on with my work here," Rhoda said hastily. And after a pause she added, impelled by the yearning kindness in Miss Merivale's eyes, "Mr. Price wishes me to stay here. It is not as if I was his own niece, you see. And I am nearly twenty; I am quite able to earn my own living."
Miss Merivale dropped her hand suddenly, and rose and went to the window. The quiver in Rhoda's voice was more than she could bear. She spoke without turning round. "I see they are carrying the tea into the garden. Let us go out. I thought it would be pleasanter to have it out of doors. And afterwards you shall tell me what you mean to do. I should like"—
But she checked herself. She wanted to say that she would like Rhoda to come to Woodcote; but she saw how strange such a wish would seem, both to Rhoda and to Tom and Rose. She must wait a little. She must content herself with helping her in other ways.
Tom had been obliged to go to Guilford that day on farm business; but somehow he had managed to get back early, and he strolled into the garden just as they sat down to tea, not looking in the least as if he had just ridden twelve miles at headlong speed.
A faint smile crossed Miss Merivale's pale face as she saw him. It was what she had been hoping for.
She left the talk during tea-time to him and Rhoda, who had plenty to say to each other. They were both enthusiasts about a garden, and found it intensely interesting to compare notes. After tea, Tom was eager to show Rhoda some white violets in the wood close by. He found she had never seen any.
They went off together, and Miss Merivale could hear their eager, happy voices as they searched about the wood looking for the violets, just like two children. She leant back in her chair, closing her eyes. For the moment the ache at her heart was stilled. She was hoping that all might yet come right.
Rhoda went home that evening feeling like a different creature. Mrs. M'Alister had a jealous pang or two as she listened to her account of the happy time she had had.
"Don't you trust too much to her promises, child," she said anxiously. "She's taken a sudden fancy to you, that's clear enough; but it mightn't last. She might take a fancy to somebody else next week, and forget all about you. I have heard of people like that."
"I don't think Miss Merivale is a bit like that," returned Rhoda stoutly. "Hasn't she a sweet, kind face, Aunt Mary? I wish she didn't look so ill."
"Don't rest your hopes on her too much," repeated Mrs. M'Alister, shaking her head gloomily. "James will be in again to-night, and you will hear what he says. He has heard of a firm that wants a lady-clerk. We think you'd better try for it, Rhoda. I'd like to see you settled before we go away. I've been wishing and wishing this afternoon that you could go with us."
"You mustn't say that to Mr. Price, Aunt Mary," Rhoda said quickly. "You know how it vexes him. And he is very kind. You heard him tell me that I was to ask him for any money I wanted. But I don't think I shall want any. Miss Merivale said again this afternoon that she would be able to get me as much work as I could do. She is going to write to me on Monday. I am quite sure she meant it. And I don't want to try for work in an office if I can help it. I should feel in prison."
Miss Merivale had spoken very vaguely of the work she was going to give Rhoda. She had, in truth, made up her mind that Rhoda must come to Woodcote. She was only waiting till Rose came home to arrange it. However much she surprised Rose and Tom, however difficult it would be to explain why she wanted Rhoda, Rhoda must come to her. She could not leave Lydia's girl alone in London. And Tom's surprise, at least, would have no element of annoyance in it. It was quite plain already that Rhoda's company was delightful to him.
It had been arranged that Tom should go and fetch his sister on Friday, but by the first post on Friday morning Miss Merivale got a letter from Rose, saying that Pauline would return with her that afternoon, and that there was no need for Tom to come to London. It was at Pauline's instigation Rose had written the letter. Those few charmed days in the little flat had made Rose more passionately desirous than ever to get away from Woodcote, and Pauline had suggested that she should go home with Rose and beg her aunt to allow her to pay a longer visit a little later in the year.
"May is the best month of the year in London, Rose. You shall spend May with me. The flat will have to be given up then, if I cannot get anyone to share it with me. Lady Desborough only took it till the end of April. But we will have a lovely May together. I am sure your aunt will not refuse to let you come."
"I couldn't possibly stay away for a month," Rose said firmly, but with the air of a martyr. "Aunt Lucy looked heartbroken when I asked for a week this time. She has got to depend on me for everything."
"Just so. But if you were away she would do things for herself, and it would be a thousand times better for her. She won't have missed you this time as much as you fear, Rosie. And won't you think of me a little bit? Just think how lonely I shall be!"
"Oh, I know. And I want to come again," Rose said piteously. "I might get away for a week in May. If you spoke to Aunt Lucy"—
"Trust it to me entirely, dear. I know exactly what to say. And I feel sure your aunt will let you be free when she understands how much you want it. For a week or so, I mean," she added hastily, as she saw Rose's anxious look. "I mustn't ask for more, I suppose."
"It wouldn't be a bit of good to ask," sighed Rose. "If Aunt Lucy said I might stay longer, she would look so miserable about it I should not like to take her at her word. But I might be spared for a week, I should think. That will be something to look forward to."
They reached Woodcote early in the afternoon, and Pauline was soon furnished with an opportunity to plead Rose's cause with Miss Merivale. Tom had bought a new pony which he wanted Rose to see, and they went away to the stables, leaving their aunt and Pauline alone. Pauline had laughingly refused to accompany them.
"I am going to tell Miss Merivale what Mrs. Metcalfe said about your music, Rose," she said. "It would make you vain if you were to hear it."
"Who is Mrs. Metcalfe?" asked Tom, when they got outside. "Is she a great authority, Rose?"
"She is Lady Desborough's sister," returned Rose, with dignity. "Pauline and I went to tea there yesterday. She lives in Grosvenor Square."
"Ah, I understand now why Miss Smythe spoke of her with bated breath," returned Tom in the light, bantering tone which so often irritated Rose. "I might have known she lived in Grosvenor Square."
Rose refused to take notice of his raillery. "It was Mrs. Metcalfe who got Miss Sampson for Clare. She heard of her through some agency. What has made Aunt Lucy take such an interest in her, Tom? She was down here again yesterday, wasn't she?"
"Yes. Have you seen her, Rosie?"
"For a moment or two. She looked nice, I thought. But I can't imagine what Aunt Lucy can find for her to do."
"Aunt Lucy is sure that she must be related to Cousin Lydia's husband. It is natural that she should take a great interest in her. She is coming down again next week to stay for a day or two. Aunt Lucy told me this morning that she meant to ask her. I am sure you will like her, Rosie."
Tom spoke without looking at his sister, and hurried forward to open the gate of the stable yard for her without waiting to get an answer. But Rose had no answer ready. The tone in which Tom had spoken took her breath away. He seemed to think it was a matter of importance whether she liked Miss Sampson or not.
When they got back to the house, Tom went off to his own den, and when Rose entered the drawing-room she found Pauline alone.
The latter ran towards her and caught her by both hands. Her eyes were sparkling joyfully. "My Rose, I have delightful news for you. Now, confess that I am the cleverest person in the world! I have made your aunt as anxious as you are about your music. She wants you to spend two months with me in London. Two whole long, lovely months! Think of it, Rosamunda mia! And you can come next week. It is far, far more than I ever hoped for. And, who knows, you might get an extension of leave after that. We may spend the whole summer together in the flat. Well, why don't you say something? Aren't you pleased?"
"But, Pauline, I can't go. Aunt Lucy couldn't do without me. I"—
"My dear, she wants you to go," returned Pauline impatiently. "Go up and speak to her, and you will find it is so. Miss Sampson is to come here as her companion. She isn't the person I should choose for a companion, but chacun a son gout."
"Did you suggest that she should come here?" asked Rose. "Oh, Pauline, don't look at me like that! It is so sudden. And Aunt Lucy can't bear strangers. I don't think it is a good plan at all"
Pauline dropped her hands with one look, and turned away. Her lips were quivering; her face had the stricken look of one who has received a cruel blow. She did not speak, but Rose was full of remorse instantly.
"Oh, Pauline, you know I want to come to you. It would be too lovely. But it is so sudden. I can't believe Aunt Lucy would like to have Miss Sampson with her."
"You had better speak to your aunt," returned Pauline in an icy voice. "I wash my hands of the matter altogether. I did my best for you; but I see I was mistaken in thinking that you really cared about our being together. It does not matter I can give up the flat and go back to Mrs. Jephson's."
"Pauline, don't speak like that," begged Rose, with tears in her eyes. "You know how I love being with you. If I could be certain Aunt Lucy would not fret for me, I should be only too delighted to get away. I never feel more than half-alive here. But Miss Sampson could not do for her what I do."
"Don't you think you may exaggerate your usefulness to your aunt, dear?" Pauline returned, with a sneer. But with an effort she controlled her temper, and spoke the next words in a different tone. "Miss Merivale seems really anxious for you to have a change, Rose. I think she understands that you are bored and unhappy here."
"Oh, Pauline, you did not say that to her?" cried Rose, the blood rushing, up into her face.
"Of course not, darling. It was your music I spoke most of. But she does want you to come to me. Go up and speak to her; you will see that she really wants it. You won't make difficulties, Rose? Can't you see it is best for both of you to be apart for a time? Your aunt will learn to do without you. When you come back you will be able to lead a much freer life. And think of the happy time we shall have!"
But Rose's face did not light up as Pauline had expected, and it was with a very sober step that she went up to her aunt's room. She had made up her mind to tell her aunt that she did not want to go and stay with Pauline—that she had never really thought of leaving her. She expected to be clasped and fondly kissed for being so ready to give up her visit; but she found, to her hurt surprise, that Pauline had been right, and that her aunt was bent on her going away for a time.
"It is a chance that may not happen again, Rosie," she said, tenderly stroking her bright hair. "I have wanted you to have some really good music lessons for a long time, and Pauline and Mrs. Metcalfe will be able to see that you get the best. And you have been looking pale lately. You want a change; I know it has been dull for you. And I should like to have Rhoda here for a time. I have just been talking to Tom about it. He thinks it an excellent plan. You would like to go next week, wouldn't you, darling? Pauline is very anxious to have you. Before she goes away we must settle how long you are to stay. Two months, I thought of. I can't spare you longer than that, Rosie."
But, affectionate as these words were, and loving the kiss that accompanied them, Rose went downstairs again with a sore heart. She was like those who pluck Dead Sea apples, and find the fruit that looked so fair when out of reach turning to ashes in their hands.
APPLES OF SODOM.
One warm, beautiful morning, early in April, Rose was toiling rather wearily up the long flight of stone steps leading to the flat. She had her violin, and she found it heavy. She was wishing she had Tom with her to carry it.
Though Rose had not yet confessed it to herself, she was beginning to be a little homesick. She missed the delicious freshness of Woodcote, its wide rooms and sunny gardens, the thousand and one little comforts she had been too accustomed to to notice; but more, far, far more, she missed the protecting fondness that had surrounded her all her life. It was only a fortnight since she joined Pauline, but it seemed much longer. And June seemed a very long way off.
But she was looking forward to a great treat that afternoon. Paderewski was playing at St. James's Hall, and she and Pauline were going early to get seats. They would have to wait two hours or so, and might have to stand after all, but to Rose that was part of the afternoon's enjoyment. She had quite agreed with Pauline that it would be foolish to go to the expense of taking their tickets beforehand. She opened the door with her latch-key—that latch-key still gave her a thrill of proud delight when she used it—and went in.
Pauline called to her from her room.
"Rosie, is that you, dearest? I want to speak to you."
Rose put down her violin and crossed the tiny entry. Pauline was standing before her looking-glass doing her hair. She wore a soiled pink dressing-jacket elaborately trimmed with lace, and Rose observed with a little shock that there were holes in the heels of her stockings. It was not quite such a shock as it would have been a fortnight ago. Rose had discovered that Pauline was very careless about little matters of this sort. On the bed was spread out her last new dress—a charming combination of brown and gold, to be worn with a brown hat lined with yellow.
"Why, Pauline, you won't wear that dress this afternoon, will you?" asked Rose, glancing at it. "It will get so crushed."
"My Rose, shall you be very disappointed? Madame Verney has asked me to go with her. She had two tickets sent her, and Monsieur Verney had to go to Paris this morning. I am going there to lunch. How I wish you were going with me, darling! But I could not refuse when Madame Verney asked me, could I? I might have offended her."
The tears had rushed into Rose's eyes, but she drove them back. "I daresay Paderewski will play again before I go," she said. "And it was kind of Madame Verney to ask you."
"Oh, as to kindness, she would have found it dull enough to go by herself, and she knows nobody in London yet. But what do you mean about Paderewski playing again, Rosie? You'll go and hear him this afternoon, won't you? I never thought of your staying at home."
"I promised Aunt Lucy I would not go to a concert by myself," Rose answered hastily. "I couldn't go, Pauline."
"But she meant in the evening, Rosie. She couldn't mind your going this afternoon. Don't be a silly child. You'll spoil my pleasure if you stay at home. Of course you must go."
"Oh, I couldn't," returned Rose. "I promised Aunt Lucy. Besides"—
"You little country mouse!" laughed Pauline. "I believe you are afraid to go. Who do you think would eat you? Never mind, there is 'The Golden Legend' at the Albert Hall on Thursday. We'll go to that. But I must be quick; I promised to be there early. Rosie, be my good angel, and clean my shoes for me. You'll find the stuff in that box. I can't trust Mrs. Richards with my kid shoes. No, not that box, darling, the one below it."
Rose, who was delicately fastidious about all her own belongings, could never understand how Pauline allowed her room to be so untidy, and as she opened the box and took out the pot of polish she blushed to find herself thinking of Aunt Dinah and her kitchen drawers in Uncle Tom's Cabin. She took the boots away and cleaned them, and brought them back.
"Mrs. Richards isn't in the kitchen, Pauline. She hasn't gone, has she?"
"Poor dear little Rosie! Was she afraid she was going to be left all alone?" laughed Pauline. "She has only gone to get me a hansom, dear. I shall spoil my dress if I go by omnibus, and it is too far to walk. Have you five shillings in your purse you can lend me? I am hard up till the end of the term."
Rose produced the five shillings, which was not by any means the first loan Pauline had asked for. She hated herself for feeling so hurt and angry with her friend, and she was glad to lend her the money she wanted. Life would become quite intolerable in the flat if she was going to lose her belief in Pauline.
"Won't you think better of it and go to the concert?" Pauline said, when she was ready to start. "It is really silly of you to stay at home, dearest. I wouldn't have accepted Madame Verney's invitation if I had thought you would not go. But you see how it is, don't you? Her cousin is at the French Embassy, and she is sure to get to know a lot of people. She may introduce me to a great many pupils."
This sounded reasonable, and Pauline's voice was most kind and caressing, yet somehow the hurt feeling remained in Rose's heart. She saw that Pauline was delighted to go. She did not really care in the least about her disappointment. "He will be sure to play again," she answered, "I shall go for a walk in the Park. What time shall you be back, Pauline?"
Pauline hesitated. "Don't expect me till the evening, darling. Madame Verney spoke about my going back with her to tea. Shall you be very lonely? I never used to trouble about Clare. She went her way, and I went mine. And"—
"You need not trouble about me," Rose flashed out, her colour rising. "I should be sorry to spoil your afternoon, Pauline."
Pauline looked at her with grieved eyes. "It will make me most miserable if I leave you angry with me. Don't you know that I would far, far rather have gone with you? Rosie, you know that, don't you?"
But Rose had a stubborn love of truth, which prevented her from responding to this appeal as Pauline wished.
"It would have been a pity for you to refuse Madame Verney," she said. "And I shall have a nice afternoon. I will make some cakes, I think. I want to astonish Aunt Lucy and Wilmot when I go home. I shall make Wilmot let me make Tom's birthday cake."
Pauline patted her cheek. "What a child you are still, Rosie! When you have been a month or two in London, you will find yourself growing up. But I must start. How does this dress suit me? Do you think there is just a little too much yellow about it?"
Rose could frankly say that the dress was perfect. She had never seen Pauline look better. But she could not help hoping that she had changed her stockings as she watched her run lightly down the stairs to the hansom.
She felt very downhearted as she closed the door and went back to the sitting-room. The room was sweet with the primroses and white violets they had sent her from Woodcote the day before. Rose felt herself pitying the flowers for being taken from the woods and sent to wither in that stifling air. For it was stifling this afternoon. Even when she threw open the window, no breath of coolness came to fan her burning face. The sky was cloudless, but yellow with smoke, and a dull haze hung over the river.
Rose thought of Woodcote, where the great chestnuts were already in full leaf, and the gorse common beyond the wood was a sheet of gold. An intense longing took hold of her to go home, if only for an hour or two. She looked at her watch and saw that it was not yet one o'clock. There was plenty of time to go to Woodcote and get back before Pauline returned. And how joyfully surprised her aunt would be! She wondered she had not thought of it before.
An hour later she was in the train, speeding countrywards. She sat close to the window, looking eagerly at the green fields and the budding trees. She no longer felt disappointed about the concert. She was glad Madame Verney had invited Pauline to go with her.
Just outside the station for Woodcote the train came to a standstill. Rose from the window had a full view of the white road down the hillside, and as she looked along it she caught sight of an approaching carriage. It was a moment before she recognised the brown horses and the broad figure of old Harris, her aunt's coachman. But directly afterwards she saw her aunt and Rhoda Sampson, and Tom seated opposite to them.
The road passed close to the high embankment on which the train was standing. If they had looked up, they must have seen her at the window. But they were too intent on their conversation. Rose heard Tom laugh at something Rhoda said, and saw him turn to Miss Merivale as if she too was enjoying the joke.
Rose could not see her aunt's face, her parasol shaded it; but she was not leaning back against the cushions, as she usually did. She was bending a little forward, with her face turned towards Rhoda. It was quite plain to Rose that it was Miss Sampson who was absorbing the attention both of Tom and her aunt.
She stared after the carriage with angry, mystified eyes. It was her place Rhoda was sitting in! She forgot how the long drives her aunt loved used to bore her. She felt that Rhoda Sampson had no right to be sitting there, and it seemed to her positively cruel of her aunt and Tom to be so happy when she was away.
She was half inclined to go back by the next train when she heard from the stationmaster that they were gone to Guilford and would not be back till late. But on second thoughts she determined to go on to Woodcote. Wilmot would be there, at any rate. She would be able to find out how her aunt was.
She had the warmest of greetings from the old cook and housekeeper, whom she found at the linen press upstairs, carefully examining her store of lavender-scented linen.
"Your aunt will be dreadfully disappointed, Miss Rosie. What a pity you didn't come a little earlier! You could ha' gone to Guilford with them. They've gone about the new greenhouse Mr. Tom is going to build. But come down to the dining-room, my dearie, and I'll get you some tea."
"No, no; finish what you were about," returned Rose, settling herself in the window-seat. The linen press stood on a wide landing that had a window looking on the garden. It had always been a favourite spot with Rose; in the deep-cushioned window-seat she had spent many a happy afternoon. The linen press was of old oak, almost as old as the house. And opposite it stood a finely-carved dower-chest with the date 1511 carved upon it. The landing-floor, like the stairs, was of polished oak, and the wainscoted walls had one or two old pictures on them.
Rose looked round her, feeling as she had never felt before the beauty of her home. How fresh it was, and roomy! And what a delicious scent of lavender came from the old linen press! "What are you doing, Wilmot? I wish you would let me help you."
"No, thank you, my dearie. I've got what I wanted. It's this tablecloth Miss Sampson is going to darn for me. She's the cleverest young lady with her needle I ever came across, and that anxious to be useful."
"Then you like her?" asked Rose. She could not help a certain stiffness getting into her voice when she mentioned Rhoda, though she was ready to laugh at herself for being jealous of her aunt's companion.
"Nobody could help liking her, Miss Rosie. It's just like having a bit o' sunshine in the house. The mistress would ha' missed you bad enough if she hadn't had Miss Sampson to cheer her up. But nobody could feel lonely with her about. And it's wonderful what she knows about a garden."
"Do they have gardens in Australia?" asked Rose. It was the sort of remark Pauline might have made. But Rose was feeling very cross.